He was a child and she was a child.
Eighteen years old, drowning-deep in first love, he stood on the wet foreshore, his body shadowed from the moon by his borrowed horse. She faced him, pale, resolute, beautiful in the moonlight. He gripped her hands fiercely in his, desperately aware that he did not know the rules and that not even she could help him. For a long time they were silent.
Then her lips curved in an expression not quite a smile. Her cleft lip – utterly symmetric, too perfect to be a deformity – parted slightly. He looked away, trying as always to avoid looking closely at those teeth, like rows of needles.
“My love,” she said, “it is time for us to say farewell.”
He had met her on the same beach the year before.
At first she had been only a thin wavering silhouette against the bright sunset sky. As he approached her, he could make out her slight hipless form, draped in an ankle-length white dress, and eventually her porcelain-translucent features and long straight black hair.
“Good day, sir,” she said, her face impassive but her eyes bright. She was a scant five feet tall, and she looked upwards at him through long eyelashes.
“And a good day to you, miss,” he responded, bowing formally. “If I may be so bold as to introduce myself, my name is Edgar Poe.”
“And I am Anapeli’i” she said softly.
“Do you live near here?”
Her beautiful eyes dropped – demurely, he thought, finally I understand that word. “No, sir; I come from very far away. And yourself, if I may ask?”
“That, miss, is a long tale, but I’ll give you the short of it. My father left us, and my mother, God rest her, died. Last year I tried my luck at the University; but I fear that I was but an indifferent student, especially of the doctrine of chances.” He smiled sourly. “So today I find myself back in my native city, a gentleman of three outs: without money, without credit, and without employment.”
Anapeli’i did not seem alarmed by this confession. “And I have come here with my people, to decide whether your race is ready to join in a union with other worlds.”
Perhaps, he thought, she was mad; indeed, it was hard to think what other tint might be put on her words. But here by the sounding sea, in the orange light of the setting sun, away from the greater madness of the city and society, anything was possible, anything permitted. He took her hand; she did not pull back or object; and they walked along the beach, their conversation made more private – if that were possible, with furlongs of empty sand ahead and behind – by the blanketing sound of the waves, crashing and hushing, answering and interrupting each other in their slow eternal rhythm.
Over the next few months, whenever he could borrow a horse, he came to the shore; and Anapeli’i was always there to meet him in the twilight, and they talked far into the night.
He told her of his own world: of growing up as the extra child in the family, visibly a little worse dressed and invisibly a little less loved; of his too-optimistic belief that whist could pay a bright young man’s way through college. He told her of his certainty that somewhere there must be a better way to make his way in life than the dreary commerce of his foster-father’s business in tobacco, slaves, and gravestones. He told her that he was considering a career in the Army. He would have told her more of his aspirations and dreams, had he only known them himself.
What she told him in return was so outlandish that sometimes, when he woke the next morning, if it had not been for the sand in his shoes and the faint scent of horse sweat on his clothes, he would have sworn that he had dreamt everything. She had sailed, she said, with her people in a steel ship across distances so vast that even light could not cross them in a man’s lifetime. She and her entire family had spent many years in icy tomblike vaults, offering Death an advance payment in return for life beyond their usual measure. And that measure was generous; she was thirty-five years old, yet still a maiden, too young to take a mate. She explained to him, as matter-of-factly as if she were describing a new fashion or the latest play, how the weight of a sun, the size of a world’s orbit, and the length of its year were related.
He listened to her incredible tales, felt his heart tremble, and did not know what to think.
Some of her stories were phantasmagorical, the stuff of opium dreams and obscene nightmares. When she was older, she told him once, she would lay one or two eggs, and after that she would become male, though her outward appearance would hardly change. But he had become so used to the strangeness of her stories that though he could not believe what she told him, yet he was unable to cast it off as a lie; he merely put it aside unjudged, as a pie too hot to eat is set on the windowsill to cool.
One moonlit night, they had been speaking for an hour. For the hundredth time he had wondered if he dare take her in his arms and kiss her. In an ecstasy of love he had uttered her name, and she laughed softly.
“I am not Anapeli’i; she is kept tonight by other work. I am her mother, Ulalumë.”
He knew this for the truth. His knees felt weak... could he not recognize his own love? He grasped irrationally at the first straw. “So what she told me about eggs...”
Ulalumë smiled proudly. “Yes,” he said. “Anapeli’i hatched from one of my eggs.” The blood in Edgar’s face and arms tingled and fizzed, and the night went, softly, totally black.
He came to, gritty damp sand against his side and cheek, to see Ulalumë standing over him. “Edgar... are you ill? Is there something that I should do?”
He pulled himself clumsily to his feet, and staggered away along the beach, the horse following him uncertainly. After fifty yards he was miserably, quakingly, sick. He stumbled down to the water’s edge, and, ignoring the ruin of his shoes and stockings, washed his mouth and face as well as he might in the bitter salt water. Then he walked back to the puzzled horse, climbed weakly into the saddle, and rode home.
He stayed away for almost two weeks. But at last he returned; and for many more nights he and Anapeli’i, or Ulalumë, or whoever else might come to him in the same form – he never dared ask – walked the shore in the twilight, talking of stars and of slavery, of countries that he had never seen and planets that she had never visited, of the forces that drive a ship across interstellar space and of the forces that drive Virginia society. And then, too soon, the summer was at an end.
“What do you mean?” he asked. The first light gusts of a cold North wind rustled the trees.
“My time here is over. I – I am sorry...” Her voice trembled, but she did not blink back tears. He had never seen her blink.
Somehow he had known that this must happen. Anapeli’i, real or not, was a character in a wild and fevered dream, and from every dream one must wake. And he knew without asking what her people had decided. No world that he had ever known: not the poor boarding house where he now lived; not the infantry officer’s life to which he aspired; not the house, paid for in the blood of slaves, where he grew up; not the crime and corrupt politics in the newspapers, nor the various wars at home and abroad – none of it was fine enough to earn his countrymen a place beside these beautiful miraculous childlike people who sailed among the stars.
“What... what will happen?” he asked.
“I will rejoin my people on the ship. And I will sleep there, not dead but in a cataleptic trance, chilled to near freezing point, until we reach our next destination.”
“Please – Anapeli’i! – my love! – stay with me! I beg you!”
“Alas, Edgar, I cannot. And...there is one more thing that I must do.” Her voice was very small. She took a tiny white device like a squat porcelain pistol out of her clothing, pointed it at his head, and squeezed.
The next morning he woke up on the dew-damp sand, cold, stiff and sore, a little above the high water mark, with no recollection of how he came to be there. At first he thought that he must have been drinking, drinking to oblivion, but his head was clear. The horse stood grazing the coarse dune-grass nearby; he mounted and rode slowly back into Boston, foolish and forlorn before the world. He never went back to the beach again.
Anapeli’i and Ulalumë were preparing for hibernation together, as was their habit. Their ship was passing the orbit of Mars, accelerating steadily, and many of the crew were already sleeping.
They stripped off their clothes in the prep room, revealing smooth rubbery bodies, seemingly boneless. Nude and without cosmetics, they would never have passed for human. Ulalumë’s maleness would not have been obvious even to one of his own people; neither had external genitalia, and it was not the season for his breeding coloration.
“You did well, my daughter,” Ulalumë said. “I think we learned more from the specimen you studied than we did from any of the eleven others. You are becoming a fine xenologist.”
“I did not like to take his memories, Mother,” said Anapeli’i. “We had grown close... like clustermates. I would have wished him to remember me.”
He gestured agreement with a sinuous ripple of his spine. “I understand, dear one. But it is important for the development of his people that they do so without interference. And though they are not ready yet, I believe that they will develop; there is much that is admirable about them.”
“But we don’t even know if the disruptor is safe to use on his people – on him! Some of the animals of his world that we tested it on acted so strangely.”
“Hush, my eggling, hush, my brave child. The disruptor has been used on hundreds of worlds, and bad reactions are rare. I know, I know: nothing is certain, and risk is always with us. But you have done the best that you can for him and for his people.”
They embraced for a minute, like snakes knotting together. Then they walked through to the winter room and slithered into their hibernacula; the technician did what was necessary, and they slept.
Edgar joined the Army, and then entered West Point. But he began to have strange dreams, and in his waking hours, mad thoughts and urges would come into his mind from nowhere. A fellow cadet suggested that he write them down as poetry; his first book had some success.
Driven by the strange urges that he had come to think of as his “Imp of the Perverse,” he arranged his own court-martial and expulsion from West Point, and tried to earn his bread with his pen. Sometimes he wrote compulsively, in a dark Gothic style, about beautiful lost women: Lenore, Madeline Usher. Annabel Lee.
At other times he wrote more after the droll manner of Lucian or de Bergerac. He wrote realistic accounts of balloon flights – even suggesting that such a vessel might cross the Atlantic – and voyages to strange places. Some of his books were successful, others not; but publishers sensed his weak head for business as sharks sense blood, and his reward was little and late. To his chagrin, what little money he made was from his work as a critic and editor.
He moved to Baltimore, where he courted and secretly married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm; the marriage certificate added eight years to her thirteen. When he looked into her face he had flitting half-memories of another child-woman, long ago, on an empty strand. But he had rarely been to the seaside, and never, that he could recall, in the company of a woman. He was never able to place the elusive visions; and after a while he ceased to try.
Seven years after their marriage, Virginia was playing for him on their little parlor piano when she began to cough uncontrollably, then to choke and splutter as if drowning. She put her handkerchief to her mouth, and a few seconds later brought it away completely soaked with her blood, as if she held a scarlet cabbage rose cupped in the palm of her hand. She looked up at him; their eyes met in silent horror.
The doctor told them that it was indeed consumption, but that there was hope. As they left the office on the ground floor of the doctor’s house, the doctor took Edgar’s arm and held him back for a private word. When Edgar rejoined Virginia a minute later, she asked him what the doctor had said. “To make very sure that you get plenty of fresh air, my dearest,” he answers. It was only half a lie.
For five years, he watched her health deteriorate, sometimes dulling his own pain and quieting the voices in his head with drink. Eventually, as the doctor had warned him it must, the consumption took her.
The morning after the funeral, the author of “The Raven” sat at his desk and picked up his pen. Surely his real sorrow would transmute itself into verse as his macabre fancies used to, and so lighten his unbearable burden? But at nightfall the page in front of him was still pristine, and although lately he had been writing on the backs of old letters to save expense, he crumpled the paper viciously and threw it into the fire.
In his thirty-ninth year, he woke in the small hours of the morning, sweating and dry-mouthed. Fresh in his mind was a nightmare of a radiant white sky, hot and oppressive with far too many stars, stars crowded side by side like sand grains on a beach, arched threateningly above a baking Earth. He knew, somehow, that it was the hellishly distilled starlight that was burning the world.
Slowly words came into his mind. They were not the images of his stories: the fires of Hell, a burning palace, the crater of a volcano; they seemed more the mathematical formulae half-remembered from his West Point days. Let space be divided into an infinite nest of shells, of equal thickness, centered on the Earth. He would have been no more surprised to have found himself composing a poem in Russian. Then the number of stars in each shell shall be as the square of its radius. But the radiance that reaches the Earth from each star is inverse to the square of that radius. Thus every shell must contribute the same radiance; and the sum over all shells must be infinite. Like a man in a carriage behind a runaway horse, like a spectator at a magic lantern show given by a maniac, he lay there between the ill-smelling, unlaundered sheets, as his mind analysed the problem at lightning speed. As the sky does not appear infinitely bright, we must conclude that, beyond a certain radius, the time for light to reach the Earth is so great that the first light to leave those stars after Creation has not yet arrived. On, on, on his mind careered, beyond control. He imagined worlds that warped the very space around them, stars so heavy that no light could escape from them; huge rotating gas clouds, nascent stars, shedding planets as they shrank and condensed; and the eventual collapse of the entire universe in a gravitational apocalypse.
Finally, dawn came. When there was enough light in the sky to write by, he dragged himself out of bed and committed what he could recall of his visions to paper. A week later, it was finished. He entitled it Eureka: a prose poem and, despite a vague unease about whether it was a masterpiece or a sign that he was losing his mind, he took the manuscript and walked to George Putnam’s printing house.
Despite his worn and unwashed clothes, his status as a sometime successful author earned him admission into Putnam’s office. Incoherently, he tried to explain that the greasy manuscript in his hand was a great work of astronomy, greater even than Newton’s Principia.
Putnam knew nothing of Newton, but the rules of good business suggest that a man who has written one successful book may write another. While declining to publish the requested fifty thousand (fifty thousand!) copies, he agreed to a prudent initial run of five hundred.
The little book was not well received. Among his friends, Putnam congratulated himself on his caution, and thought to himself that while a man of business should not be afraid to take risks, he would have to find some way to recoup this loss from the author’s next contract.
One gray October day a year later, Edgar was travelling from Richmond to New York, and broke his journey in his familiar, memory-laden Baltimore. As the next coach did not leave for an hour and a half, he decided to go outside and take the air.
He soon found himself beneath the familiar sign of Ryan’s Tavern. He looked at the door, fingered the Sons of Temperance pin recently installed on his worn coat, and realized with satisfaction that the tavern’s hold on him had faded, at least for the present.
Suddenly the uncontrollable maelstrom of ideas began again. He staggered and clutched at a tree, as images of huge steel ships in the air, needle-toothed women with bodies like snakes, and a myriad other grotesqueries screamed and gibbered through his mind. The torrent of hallucinations doubled and redoubled, worse than ever before, overtopping the banks of his brain. He collapsed, and lay there unconscious, passers-by stepping disdainfully around him, until eventually somebody recognized him and he was taken to a hospital.
The doctor who admitted him assumed – despite the temperance pin, which he considered but a poor guide in such cases – that liquor was to blame. But the man’s breath had no odour of rum or whiskey. The doctor shrugged, and had him put to bed; rest was indicated in any case, and diagnosis might wait until the man could speak.
For some days the patient remained unconscious. On the fourth day he became agitated and mumbled a few syllables. A nurse heard, and sent word to the doctor.
“What is he saying, Sister?” the doctor asked. “Can you make it out?”
“I think it is ‘Annabel Lee,’ Doctor. A woman’s name.” She smoothed the sheets and wiped the fever sweat from the patient’s brow with a cool damp cloth. “Is it somebody we should notify?”
The doctor shook his head. “The gentleman who brought him in said that he is a widower from Virginia, Sister. It seems that there is a male cousin here in Baltimore; but he is away on private business. There is nothing more we can do. Call me if there is any improvement.”
But when the doctor was summoned again, three-quarters of an hour later, it was to certify the patient’s death. After some soul-searching, he put the cause as “Unknown.”